Can a government decide which TV channels are broadcast?

Thomas Sideris, Sunday’s Zaman 

In Greece, in the middle of yet another evaluation of the financial rescue program set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Commission (EC) and the European Central Bank (ECB), the bags of Aeolus have opened after the government’s decision to actively intervene in the issue of legal operating permits for TV channels.

The competition will be international, and a Turkish TV channel owner and former presenter has already shown interest. At least this is the rumor in Athens. We will set a fundamental question for the sake of the discussion: Can the Greek government, or any government, set its own rules as to how many permits will be given and to whom?

It is a fact that Greek TV channels have, until now, been using a publicly owned good (the analog frequency transmissions) without ever paying for that. The vast majority of Greek TV channels are businesses deep in debt with huge bank loans that cannot be repaid. Actually, now that their earnings have been dramatically reduced due to the financial crisis, their financial situation has worsened and their future doesn’t seem bright. It is also a fact that democracy cannot set barriers, there has to exist polyphony and pluralism, as long as no personal or social rights are violated in this ocean of information and different opinions. In other words, democracy should not have barriers, but it should set the rules. These rules are what the Greek government claims to be trying to set. But, in the wrong way, and with inappropriate rules.

The evolution of technology has altered everything. Nowadays, all Greek TV channels are digital. The digital spectrum is, theoretically, endless and sets no limitations. The government insists that only four TV channels of national range and general content can broadcast. In a second stage it will deal with peripheral TV channels and topic-related channels such as sports, music, history, entertainment, etc.

Why only four TV channels and not eight, 12 or 16? This is something the Greek government cannot explain either sufficiently or convincingly. It is based on general studies and personal evaluations of certain individuals involved.

The argument of the government focuses on the fact that the market cannot «accept» more TV channels as the advertising pie is small. This may be right. But still, if a businessman wants to invest, even in a non-profit activity, why should he be rejected? Business activity, on condition that it doesn’t harm people’s rights, is a free choice protected by the country’s laws and the constitution.

The government, though, is setting yet another parameter: the content of the TV programs. It focuses on the fact that the content of the programs has to be «qualitative» and «objective.» Now, how are quality and objectivity defined, and who will define them? Not a government, that’s for sure. A government, any government, wants nothing but objectivity. It wants plenty and permanent supporters of its governmental work.

In Greece an independent (of government) authority deals with the content of programs and quite often issues large fines when a program underestimates the viewer’s intelligence or promotes illegal advertising and gambling. So, why should a government interfere with the work of such an independent authority?

When the present government was in opposition, one example of its pre-election rhetoric was that it would fight the «interweaving» economic relations and dependent relationships between businessmen and TV channel owners with government members. Syriza claimed to heal the wound of interweaving. Now, after 13 months in government, they are repeating the same rhetoric, leaving off their agenda other much more crucial issues. For, not even the evaluation of the financial program is the most important issue. The main issue is the development of the productivity and the restarting of the economy on all levels.

Thus, the Greek government is a victim of its own rhetoric as far as TV channels are concerned. A democratic government doesn’t set barriers, but rules accepted by all.


*Thomas Sideris is a journalist and author based in Athens.

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